leon sandler mit

Innovation: The MIT Way

Feb. 28, 2014
"Yes, you need the labs and you need the very expensive equipment and all that. But it comes down to having people work together to make this happen. That is the essential element for success." - Leon Sandler, executive director, Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, MIT  

In his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama promised that 2014 would be "a year of action." He wasn't kidding.

In just the first two months of 2014, Obama announced the creation of three new National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) hubs designed to do nothing less than to disrupt, revitalize and transform American manufacturing.

All told, these innovation centers, set up in Detroit, Chicago, and Raleigh, N.C., wield over $600 million in public/private investments and the commitment from 160 manufacturers, universities and industry organizations. The Detroit project alone – the "American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Initiative "(ALMMII) – is expected to single-handedly bring 10,000 new jobs to the region.

And that's just the start – by year's end, Obama has promised four more institutes created in manufacturing hotbeds across the country, all of them pulling together the right people, institutions and companies to push manufacturing and manufacturing technology forward.

Combined with the NNMI's pilot institute, America Makes (formerly NAMII), created back in August 2012, these eight centers and the nearly $1 billion of investment they carry are the first big push toward the ultimate goal of 45 centers set up within the next decade. They are also the proving grounds for the model they represent.

If all goes as planned, the next few years could see rapid advancements in an exciting array of technologies – new lightweight materials from Detroit, next generation power electronics from North Carolina, advancements in digital manufacturing and design in Chicago, 3-D printing disruptions from Youngstown, and who knows what else.

It has the potential to breathe new life into American manufacturing and really set off the resurgence we've been waiting for.

But only if it goes as planned.

These new groups have a lot of work ahead of them, a lot of investments to make and a lot of systems to create. After all, these are high potential, highly funded hubs created out of nothing in the center of a highly charged political spotlight.

With so much invested in these centers and so much resting on their outcome, we turned to one of the real experts in innovation – MIT's Deshpande Center for Technological – to see how, and if, they can succeed.

Five Tips from MIT

Since 2002, MIT's Deshpande Center has worked steadily to transform markets and transform lives with everything from better batteries to better cancer treatments. It has spun out 28 startup companies worth over $400 million in that time, all of them pushing cutting edge technologies from the fringes of academia into the mainstream market. It is where good ideas are born and where they are groomed for the world.

In the process of this work, Executive Director Leon Sandler has learned a few things about innovation and making innovation hubs like the NNMI projects work.

"The big innovation stuff takes a long time; the really tough stuff doesn't happen easily." - Leon Sandler Executive Director, Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Pulling from that experience, he has five key pieces of advice for the new innovators entering the field – advice critical for innovation success in NNMI projects or your own R&D centers.

1. Expect to Fail
"Part of innovation is trying new things. If these innovation hubs are themselves innovative – which they should be – you would not expect them all to work. You would expect there to be failures. You expect along the way people would learn what works well, what doesn't work well, how they need to be restructured.

"That's the thing: Don't expect that everything will turn out really well. It will be a learning experience."

2. Choose Your Leaders Carefully
"Whether these projects will succeed or fail will come down to execution and leadership – to who is running them and if they able to execute properly.

So, If you're trying to make a go of this, the first thing you need to do is hire very, very good people in your organization that are going to run it.

It starts with the leadership – a the leadership and then the team below the leadership. You need highly competent people – very competent and innovative people.

3. Empower Experts
"You really want to allow the people running the hubs and the people below them to be able to make decisions. "The minute you tie this up in a bureaucratic decision-making system where everything needs to be moved up to higher and higher levels, you're going to make the wrong decisions.

"There's often a level of feel and judgment that goes into this stuff. You cannot do it all just by mechanical ranging and scoring. So decisions need to be made on the level where people have really deep knowledge about whatever that decision is."

4. Think Long-Term
"If you want to measure progress in innovation, you have to have a very, very long time scale – way longer than any politician's time scale. You need to be thinking 10-20 years before you measure anything.

"If you start measuring short term, you'll change the behavior and you'll never get the big innovations, just those that can be accomplished quickly.

"The big innovation stuff takes a long time; the really tough stuff doesn't happen easily."

5. Value People over Technology

"The interesting thing is, this stuff is actually not about technology. It's about people and it's about relationships. It's about people working together, communicating, exchanging ideas. That's how this stuff will happen.

"Yes, you need the labs and you need the very expensive equipment and all that. But it comes down to having people work together to make this happen. That is the essential element for success."

About the Author

Travis M. Hessman | Editor-in-Chief

Travis Hessman is the editor-in-chief and senior content director for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He began his career as an intern at IndustryWeek in 2001 and later served as IW's technology and innovation editor. Today, he combines his experience as an educator, a writer, and a journalist to help address some of the most significant challenges in the manufacturing industry, with a particular focus on leadership, training, and the technologies of smart manufacturing.

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